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SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 13)

It’s Friday, Day 13 of the Haru Basho, and the tension keeps racheting up. Yokozuna Kisenosato remains undefeated atop the leaderboard, but yesterday both M10 Tochiozan and sekiwake Takayasu suffered their second losses, putting them out of the immediate race for the yusho [tournament championship], and leaving just ozeki Terunofuji one win behind the leader. And with both Kisenosato and Terunofuji looking so solid, the idea that both of them would slip up here in the final weekend and give the two-loss rikishi a chance to get back in the mix seems like an extreme longshot. But then, we’ve already seen a bunch of highly unlikely occurences so far this tournament . . . so there’s no telling what will happen next.

An interesting thing happened for the first time this basho yesterday, Kisenosato fell. He didn’t lose, but he did physically fall to the clay at the tail end of his win over M4 Arawashi. It hadn’t struck me until I was watching it that ALL of his previous twelve wins were so dominant that NONE of his opponents have forced him to leave his feet, even for a moment. I hope that Kisenosato will be able to keep his energy high over the next three days, because he’s facing yokozuna Harumafuji today, and the yokozuna Kakuryu and ozeki Terunofuji (probably in that order) . . . all great opponents who will require all of the shin-yokozuna’s skill and power to overcome.

Terunofuji is looking, if anything, like he’s getting stronger here in the final days of the basho. Both of his last two wins, over M5 Endo and M4 Arawashi, were high-powered slugfests, and the ozeki finished them looking energized and ready for more. His remaining matches will be against yokozuna Kakuryu, sekiwake Kotoshogiku, and yokozuna and yusho-leadeer Kisenosato. Given the way Terunofuji is fighting, I think there’s a better than even chance that he’ll win the first two. That would leave the Day 15 pairing against Kisenosato as the one the would decide the yusho . . . and isn’t that how we WANT our tournaments to end?

Things are not going so well in the other story I’ve been covering all basho. Yesterday sekiwake Kotoshogiku lost his match against M3 Takrafuji, dropping his record to 7–5. Now, if all Kotoshogiku was trying for was a kachi-koshi[majority of wins], that wouldn’t be so bad . . . he still has three matches and would only need one more win. But in order to succeed in his quest to reverse his January demotion and regain the rank of ozeki, he must get TEN wins . . . which means he must now win EVERY match remaining on his schedule,which is likely to be komusubi Shodai today, ozeki Terunofuji tomorrow, and probably one of the M4 rikishi on Sunday—Yoshikaze or Arawashi. No matter how you slice it, though, winning all three of these matches is NOT a very likely scenario.

Add on top of that all the rank-and-file rikishi who are battling to reach kachi-koshi (or, in the more dire situations, to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses]) and you’ve got what should be the start of a full weekend of high-energy, high-drama sumo! So let’s get to today’s matches!

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–5) vs. komusubi Shodai (4–8)—This is it for Kotoshogiku. If he wants to get his ozeki ranking back, he has to win ALL of his remaining matches. Today it’s Shodai, who has a lackluster record, already reaching make-koshi, but has fought strong the whole way through. Somehow, Kotoshogiku has to shake off the last two days’ losses and get himself back on a winning track, otherwise all we’ll be talking about is whether or not he’ll announce his retirement before or after the end of the basho. (5:55)

M4 Yoshikaze (7–5) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–2)—Like Kotoshogiku, Takayasu has to find a way to shake off the mental effects of losing two days in a row. He’s almost certainly out of the running for the yusho, but he IS still building toward a hopeful ozeki promotion if he can perform well in May’s Natsu Basho. He needs at least one more win to stay on pace . . . and it would do a world of good mentally to finish strong. (6:25)

Ozeki Terunofuji (11–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (8–4)—All basho long, Terunofuji has been strutting around, crushing foes, and acting like a yokozuna. Well, beginning today he gets to actually fight against yokozuna. Kakuryu is the easiest of the targets, but still a formidable opponent. Terunofuji showed himself susceptible to a strong tachi-ai [initial charge] and a skillful follow-up belt attack when he lost to Takayasu on Day 6. but he should be prepared for that sort of thing from Kakuryu. (7:45)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (9–3) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (12–0)—I just don’t know what to think about Harumafuji. Earlier this week he looked like his ankles were killing him and that he didn’t have enough strength left to mount his usual powerful tachi-ai charges, but the last few days that’s just what he’s done. But does he have enough energy to handle an opponent as big, strong, and skilled as Kisenosato? Particularly the unflappable, undefeated version of Kisenosato that he’s going to face today? And for his part, can Kisenosato maintain his focus?  (8:50)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 12)

It’s Day 12 of the Haru Basho and things just got REAL! . . . I don’t know why I said that. It just seemed like a sports blog kind of thing to say. Things have been REAL the whole tournament, it’s just that we hadn’t had any significant changes to the leaderboard in days. Not so. Now there is only ONE undefeated rikishi leading the pack at 11–0, and it is shin-yokozuna Kisenosato, with three rikishi one win behind at 10–1, ozeki Terunofuji, sekiwake Takayasu, and M10 Tochiozan. The thing is, they ALL had very exciting matches yesterday.

Let’s begin with the leader. Kisenosato continued to prove that he was completely deserving of his promotion as he was thoroughly challenged by M4 Yoshikaze. Despite the smaller, faster rikishi grabbing the advantage from the tachi-ai [initial charge], Kisenosato patiently countered every move Yoshikaze made until he got the opening he needed, and then he spun the smaller man around and guided him out of the dohyo . . . simple as can be. It’s the simplicity, the matter-of-factness of Kisenosato’s recent performances that are most impressive.

Also incredibly impressive has been Terunofuji, who seems to truly have rediscovered his mojo. Yesterday M4 Arawashi pushed him as hard and as far as anyone all basho. At several points, Terunofuji seemed to be in an unrecoverable position . . . and yet he not only recovered, he took control of the bout and ended up throwing Arawashi to the groud with stunning conviction. This might be remembered as the best single match of the tournament.

Takayasu also put up an incredible fight against his opponent, yokozuna Kakuryu. He truly looked like an ozeki, taking weak positions and turning them around to strong ones. Unfortunately, the yokozuna simply did the same thing only better.

On the other hand, Tochiozan only stayed on the leaderboard with a heaping helping of good luck. He tried an ill-advised henka against M6 Chiyokuni and barely managed to pull his opponent down with him, resulting in a monoii [judge’s conference] that required a torinaoshi [redo]. And in the second match, Chiyonokuni tried an even MORE ill-advised henka, which Tochiozan spotted and easily won the fight.

Today, Takayasu has to face another yokozuna, Harumafuji, and he needs a better outcome or he’ll find himself out of the yusho [tournament championship] race entirely. Meanwhile, Kisenosato fights Arawashi, who could pull off an upset if he fights the way he did yesterday. Terunofuji gets a relatively light assignment against M5 Endo, who is having a mediocre tournament overall. Finally, Tochiozan will square off against M14 Myogiryu who, on the one hand, is having a pretty bad tournament and is only two losses away from make-koshi [majority of losses], but on the other hand is a former sanyaku rikishi who sometimes still shows a flash of brilliance.

The other change of note is that sekiwake Kotoshogiku lost his match to M1 Ikioi yesterday. As you may recall, Kotoshogiku is trying to achieve at least 10 wins in order to regain the rank of ozeki (which he lost after having two make-koshi performances in a row). This is a pretty big disappointment for a number of reasons. First, Ikio has been having a terrible tournament, and is probably one of the softest targets that Kotoshogiku is likely to face in the remainder of the basho. Second, what the hell was Kotoshogiku thinking by pulling a half-henka against someone with a 1–9 record?! That he didn’t drive straight at Ikioi tells me that Kotoshogiku is hurting and he’s trying to get wins as easily and quickly as possible. That’s just not going to cut it at this juncture. If he wants his ozeki rank back, he’s going to have to go in and fight tooth and nail to get it. At this point he must win three of his remaining four matches . . . and those will be against ozeki Terunofuji, komusubi Shodai, M3 Takarafuji, and probably one of the M4s (Yoshikaze or Arawashi). There isn’t a soft target among that group! I hate to say it, but losing to Ikioi may have doomed Kotoshogiku’s chances of regaining his former rank.

M14 Myogiryu (5–6) vs. M10 Tochiozan (10–1)—Tochiozan looked a little shaky yesterday. One more loss and he’s pretty much out of contention, so he’d better sharpen up for today’s match against Myogiryu. (0:37)

Yokozuna Hakuho vs. yokozuna Asashoryu—A flashback match from the January 2008 basho. It’s amazing see Hakuho in the prime of his career, just his fourth basho as a yokozuna. Sit back and enjoy one of the all-time best sumo bouts you’re ever likely to see. (2:10)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–4) vs. M3 Takarafuji (5–6)—Kotoshogiku’s loss to yesterday to Ikioi really puts him in a tough spot. He’s got to win three out of his next four matches, starting today. It’s no easy task, but I’m certainly rooting for him . . . at the very least, I want him to make a good run at it. A win today secures his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and puts him on a 50/50 track to reaching his ultimate goal. (5:50)

M5 Endo (6–5) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (10–1)—Terunofuji showed just how “in the zone” he is this tournament with his win yesterday over M4 Arawashi, who seemed to have the ozeki at a severe disadvantage for most of the bout. But Terunofuji dug in his heels and practically willed himself to win. Endo is going to have to come up with some kind of spectacular performance to win this match. (6:22)

M4 Arawashi (3–8) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (11–0)—Arawashi gave a stellar performance in vane yesterday. He’s going to have to be at least that good and probably better if he wants to beat the shin-yokozuna. Kisenosato still seems like a man on a mission—this tournament is now his to lose, and he knows it.  (7:05)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (8–3) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–1)—Takayasu has had a terrific basho up till now, and his loss to yokozuna Kakuryu yesterday is more or less how things were “supposed” to go . . . but the sekiwake doesn’t want it how it’s “supposed” to be. He’s still in the hunt for the yusho at this stage, but in order to remain there he’s going to have to beat his yokozuna opponent today, and that’s a feasible task. Earlier this week, Harumafuji was showing clear signs that his ankles were hurting and that the didn’t have the same speed or power that he usually brings to the dohyo. If Takayasu can bring the kind of power and command he used to beat Terunofuji on Day 6, he should have a similar result. That having been said, Harumafuji is one of the smartest, toughest rikishi I’ve ever seen . . . and he seems to dearly relish proving that he deserves his spot atop the banzuke. (7:40)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 11)

Two-thirds of the Haru Basho are in the book, and the Day 11 leaderboard remains the same as it’s been for the past few days. Yokozuna Kisenosato and sekiwake Takayasu have perfect 10–0 records and the lead over ozeki Terunofuji and M10 Tochiozan, who both are 9–1. Weirdly, with yokozuna Kakuryu’s vert sloppy loss yesterday, there are NO rikishi with 8–2 records, meaning that it’s almost impossible for some dark horse to finish strong and sneak into the yusho [tournament championship] race.

One weird thing the past few days has been Tochiozan’s sudden use of henka [side-step “trick” plays at the initial charge]. When I first was able to start watching sumo again (when I discovered Jason’s and Kintamayama’s YouTube channels back in late 2014), Tochiozan and Takayasu were both sanyaku-ranked rikishi . . . and I had a very hard time telling them apart over the course of a tournament. I’d confuse their records or which of them had made a particular performance a few days earlier, and I even had trouble remembering which one was which when they both were on the screen.

For most of the past two years they have fallen and risen through the banzuke [ranking sheet] more or less in sync until last summer. Since then Takayasu has put on a great surge of confidence and consistency, made one run at an ozeki promotion, and now is in the middle of a second . . . with a real shot at the yusho this basho. Meanwhile, Tochiozan has continued to yo-yo up and down the banzuke, and really is only contending for the yusho this time because he’s ranked so low and doesn’t have to face the top competition. The fact that he’s reduced to using henka maneuvers against such relatively weak opponents, while Takayasu is going chest to chest with top-rankers makes the concept of finding the two interchangeable to be ridiculous.

Each rikishi has just five more bouts to go to decide their fate in this tournament . . . let’s see how they do with today’s.

BREAKING NEWS: One member of the Sumo Association publicly stated that if Takayasu wins the yusho it is possible that he could be promoted to ozeki, despite not having achieved the usual requirement of 33 wins over the course of three basho. (In point of fact, if Takayasu finished 15–0, he WILL have 33 wins over the past three basho, even including his 7–8 make-koshi in November.) Now, since it’s only one oyakata [sumo elder] that has said it, this means that winning the basho wouldn’t guarantee the promotion. The Sumo Association likes to tip its hand this way to give itself more options, but it’s very leery of promising rewards or promotions beyond the bounds of general practice, but almost always let it be known when they’re considering doing so. This is, in fact, why Kisenosato’s promotion was so controversial . . . they hadn’t let slip the rumor that a single yusho would be enough to get the job done.

M6 Chiyonokuni (7–3) vs. M10 Tochiozan (9–1)—Tochiozan lucks out again in that while Chiyonokuni is ranked above him, the schedulers haven’t yet pulled him up to face any of the rikishi at the top of the banzuke yet. He has to take advantage of these relatively easy pairings while they last, because during the final weekend they’re CERTAIN to give him tougher pairings if he’s still hanging in there on the leaderboard. (5:45)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (5–5) vs. M3 Shohozan (2–8)—This match has nothing to do with the yusho race, but it is a super energetic example of yotsu [slapping and thrusting] sumo. Plus it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to watch! (9:20)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–3) vs. M1 Ikioi (1–9)—Ikioi may be ranked M1, but he’s having a terrible basho, and that means that he may be the easiest pairing that Kotoshogiku will see for the remainder of the tournament. Kotoshogiku needs three more wins to regain his ozeki rank, and winning today would make that a 50/50 shot (with him needing to win only two of his remaining four matches). On the other hand, a loss today means that he has to win three-out-of-four against the top rikishi . . . and the fact that he failed against Ikioi will decrease the already long odds that he can pull off that feat. (10:55)

M4 Arawashi (3–7) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (9–1)—Arawashi has a very bad record this tournament, but he’s been fighting strong, pushing lots of the sanyaku rikishi to the edge of defeat . . . only to slip over that edge himself at the last minute. Terunofuji is doing GREAT, but he’s not invincible. As long as he stays focused, he should win this one handily. (11:30)

Sekiwake Takayasu (10–0) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (7–3)—This is the first of Takayasu’s two biggest challenges—the remaining yokozuna. He’s certainly been performing like someone who has the ability to win even against a grand champion, but actually DOING it is another matter. Add to that Kakaryu’s embarrassment over yesterday’s loss, and his yokozuna pride to prove his dominance, and this seems like it ought to be a big-hitting match. (13:45)

M4 Yoshikaze (6–4) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (10–0)—Yoshikaze has what it takes to beat just about any of the top-rankers. He’s fast, tricky, highly skilled, and easy to underestimate. He spent a good part of 2016 ranked among the sanyaku, and he’s shown that he’s comfortable there. Kisenosato has to remain calm, focused, and confident and treat this as “just another day at the office.” He can certainly beat Yoshikaze, as long as he doesn’t get into his own head and sow too much worry or doubt. (15:25)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 10)

Day 10 of the Haru Basho arrives with no changes to the leaderboard. Yokozuna Kisenosato and his stablemate sekiwake Takayasu remain in the lead with unbeaten 9–0 records. Directly behind them are ozeki Terunofuji and M10 Tochiozan. That’s not to say there have been no changes, though. Yokozuna Harumafuji lost his third match yesterday, putting him for all practical purposes out of the race for the yusho [tournament championship]. He will have a lot to say in who the eventual winner is, though, since no one on the leaderboard has faced him yet.

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku put up a good fight yesterday against his old rival Kisenosato, but despite the five years they spent as banzuke [ranking sheet] equals, the yokozuna proved that there’s definitely a reason he’s climbed to sumo’s highest rank while Kotoshogiku is struggling to regain his former ozeki ranking. Still, that result was predictable. Kotoshogiku is 6–3 as of today, and he must win four of his remaining six matches to achieve his goal.

M13 Daishomaru (6–3) vs. M10 Tochiozan (8–1)—Tochiozan continues to stay one win behind the leaders, but he’s not looking particularly impressive in doing so (particularly considering the fact that he’s facing such low-ranked opponents. Of course, in sumo style doesn’t really count for much . . . all that matters is the win/loss record, and as long as Tochiozan finds SOME way to keep winning, he’ll remain in the hunt for the yusho. (2:30)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (6–3) vs. M1 Takekaze (2–7)—Kotoshogiku can’t let his loss yesterday break his confidence or concentration. He needs four more wins to regain his ozeki rank, and he’s only got six matches in which to get them (and he has a bout against ozeki Terunofuji coming up in his not too distant future). Meanwhile, Takekaze has fought valiantly this tournament, but just hasn’t come away with the wins. In fact, the next time he loses it will be his make-koshi [majority of losses] so if anything he’s going to be turning the pressure UP over his next few bouts. Two physically similar rikishi who both desperately need a win. (8:25)

M2 Takanoiwa (2–7) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (9–0)—Takayasu has been a fairly strong rikishi for the past couple of years, but all of a sudden he seems practically invincible. Now, a good part of this certainly is that he’s in the same stable as Kisenosato, and training with someone on a track for yokozuna promotion certainly did wonders for his skills, too. But it’s more than that. It’s like along with the physical skills he’s picked up some of Kisenosato’s confidence. All that is my way of saying that I don’t think Takanoiwa stands much of a chance today. (9:20)

Komusubi Shodai (3–6) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (8–1)—With yesterday’s win, Terunofuji got his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and erased his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. More than that, though, he seems to have miraculously shed the albatross of the past sixteen months or so, and instantly returned to being the man he was in mid-2015. He’s looking like the rikishi who won the Natsu Basho that year and secured promotion to ozeki at the age of twenty-four. I’ll be honest, I was beginning to fear that he was NEVER going to rest enough to fully heal and we’d NEVER see him reach his full potential. But it’s been GREAT seeing him resurgent this tournament. All of that is my way of saying that I don’t think Shodai stands much of a chance today. (10:10)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (5–4) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (9–0)—Kisenosato is clearly the man to beat in this basho. He’s not only winning, and winning convincingly, he’s walking around with a swagger in his step and a steely glint in his eye that says he’s “in the zone,” that he’s not going to lose concentration and take a bad loss like he has in so many past tournaments. But then again, it’s just when you’re feeling that way that you become most vulnerable to overconfidence. As good as he’s performing, Kisenosato is the one rikishi I most FEAR will lose to a clearly inferior opponent, just because the yokozuna was too busy being yokozuna and forgets to actually fight. (11:45)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 9)

We roll into Week 2 of the Haru Basho with two stable-mates atop the leaderboard with perfect 8–0 records. Yokozuna Kisenosato and sekiwake Takayasu have both secured their kachi-koshi [majority of wins] in the minimum amount of time possible . . . but that’s just the start of what they’re aiming for. If they can manage to maintain their unbeaten streaks through senshuraku [the final day] the two will face each other in a playoff at the end of the regulation matches. That’s a big ask for these two, as they’ll be facing the toughest opponents here in Week 2, but given how strong they’re both performing, I’d say that it’s a very serious possibility.

There was a lot of spectacular sumo over the weekend, with a few rare kimarite [winning techniques] and some incredibly energetic performances. This only bodes well for the action in Week 2 as the rikishi fight to achieve kachi-koshi. Unlike tournaments in the recent past, there are relatively few rikishi with particularly bad records and so few who are looking desperate to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses]. And even the few who are in that camp, such as Ikioi and Ichinojo, have gotten through the toughest part of their schedules and hopefully will have a chance to turn their fortunes around.

Today’s highlight matches include:

M15 Tokushoryu (6–2) vs. M10 Tochiozan (7–1)—Tochiozan is facing about as lowly ranked an opponent as he can get, so today’s match will tell us a fair bit about his frame of mind. Whether being one behind the leaders fills him with confidence, or makes him more cautious. Whether he’s feeling hail and healthy, or whether the length of the two-week tournament is beginning to weigh on him. Basically, whether he’s got what it takes to continue to vie for the Emperor’s Cup and his first yusho!  (2:22)

Yokozuna Takanohana vs. yokozuna Akebono—Wait. What? Who?!? For some reason, today’s coverage featured a match from 1997 between the era’s two great yokozuna. (They’re probably showing it because after this match the yusho went on to be decided by a playoff . . . and this basho seems to be headed down a similar road.) Anyway, it’s a GREAT bout! (5:15)

M1 Takekaze (2–6) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (8–0)—Today it’s Takayasu’s turn to go up against one of the oldest rikishi still active in the Makuuchi Division, who has cause great stress to all the other upper ranked opponents he’s faced this tournament (he even inadvertently poked Harumafuji in the eye) . . . but hasn’t found ways to win very often. Probably more of the same today. (10:45)

M1 Ikioi (1–7) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (7–1)—With one more win, Terunofuji can erase his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. That seemed like it was going to be a stretch, given how badly he had done in January’s Hatsu Basho, but Terunofuji seems to have regained the power and vigor he hasn’t seen since the middle of 2015. A win over Ikioi, which honestly hasn’t been too difficult to get this tournament, will give him his kachi-koshi and keep him one win behind the leaders. It will also saddle Ikiioi with a make-koshi. (11:35)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (6–2) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (8–0)—I’ve been talking about how important each win is for Kotoshogiku on his quest to regain his ozeki ranking. However, there are some matches he’s just SUPPOSED to lose, and a match against a yokozuna falls into that category. However, he and Kisenosato have spent the last five years as equals ranked as ozeki. And in their sixty-three head-to-head matches, Kotoshogiku holds a three-win lead. So he has a real shot at handing Kisenosato his first loss since promotion and giving himself a real leg up on his goal of ten or more wins. (12:12)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho Nakabi [The Middle Day] (Day 8)

It’s nakabi [the middle day] of the Haru Basho, and who would have predicted the situation we have here on Day 8? There are two undefeated rikishi remaining, and they’re both from the same heya [training stable]—yokozuna Kisenosato and sekiwake Takayasu. What makes that really interesting is that since they ARE from the same stable, they will not fight during the tournament so it’s possible for them BOTH to end up with perfect zensho [no loss] 15–0 records on senshuraku [the final day]. If that were to happen, they then WOULD fight each other in a playoff. 

Of course, there IS still a whole week of sumo to go. And there are two rikishi still hot on the heels of the leaders with 6–1 records—ozeki Terunofuji and M10 Tochiozan—who will certainly have a chance to go head-to-head with the leaders before all is said and done. 

Speaking of Terunofuji, did you see his match yesterday against M1 Takekaze? The one where the ozeki flat out lifted his opponent off his feet in the center of the dohyo and just carried him across the ring and deposited him on the far side of the tawara [rice straw bales]? When asked about using the uncommon kimarite [winning technique] tsuridashi [lift out], Terunofuji reportedly said, “I was in a position to do a yaguranage [inner thigh throw], but I felt sorry for him. The tsuridashi was no big deal.” Yaguranage is a very rare kimarite, last having been seen in 2009, and before that in 1975 . . . so I’m actually kinda sorry the big guy didn’t try it.

M15 Chiyoo (3–4) vs. M10 Tochiozan (6–1)—Tochiozan continues to hang tough in the yusho [tournament championship] race, and down at maegashira 10 he’s going to continue getting relatively easier draws for at least the first half of Week 2. It’s up to him to keep winning and earn a shot at bouts against his fellow leaders. (2:40)

M12 Ura (3–4) vs. M9 Kotoyuki (2–5)—Neither Ura nor Kotoyuki are having particularly good tournaments, but they both always bring high energy and great enthusiasm to their matches. Going head to head, there’s no telling what might happen. (3:45)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (5–2) vs. M2 Sokokurai (2–5)—Kotoshogiku continues to bull his way toward what once seemed like a highly unlikely achievement—double-digit wins and a return to the rank of ozeki. He’s halfway there, and really this is probably the most dangerous part of the effort for him. He has to fight the tendency to let up and lose focus. Because while Sokokurai SHOULDN’T be a major challenge, if Kotoshogiku isn’t laser-focused on what he’s doing, the M2 has the skills to steal away a win. (9:20)

M1 Ikioi (1–6) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (7–0)—I can’t figure out Ikioi this basho. He’s looked strong and full of energy when he faces a sanyaku rikishi, pushing his opponent to the verge of defeat but not being able to close the deal . . . but then when he faces a lower ranked opponent, Ikio seems listless and distracted, and gets beaten in fairly ignominious fashion. And it shows in his 1–6 record. If he doesn’t want to end up near the bottom of the banzuke [ranking sheet] next tournament, he has to figure out how to WIN some of these matches. (10:05)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (3–4) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (6–1)—Mitakeumi is still a little out of his depth at the rank of komusubi. He’s clearly a young rikishi with a bright future ahead of him, and he’s got the strength and energy to square off against the best that sumo has to offer . . . he just doesn’t have what it takes to BEAT them with any consistency. On the other hand, he’s learning valuable lessons in those losses, and immediately using them to beat his lower ranked opponents. I think that today is bound to be another lesson-learning day for the young komusubi, but I still like his chances to pull out kachi-koshi [majority of wins] before the basho is done. (11:36)

M3 Shohozan (1–6) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (7–0)—Kisenosato has to watch himself against Shohozan. the M3 is a little firecracker, coming out of the tachi-ai [initial charge] strong and making attacks that are powerful and fast. He’s not a terribly subtle rikishi, but if you don’t START a match against him with tight mental focus and a plan for how to deflect or distract Shohozan’s flurry of blows, it’s easy to get buffaloed out of the ring before you know what’s happened. Kisenosato has been completely focused, so far this tournament, but the knock against him in the past has been that he would lose concentration at about this time in the basho. If he keeps his newly found sense of focus, though, he’ll be able to find an answer to anything that Shohozan throws his way. (13:40)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 7)

It’s Day 7 of the Haru Basho, and only three rikishi remain undefeated atop the leaderboard with 6–0 records—yokozuna Kisenosato, sekiwake Takayasu, and M10 Tochiozan. And only three rikishi are one win off the pace at 5–1—and ozeki Terunofuji, M3 Takarafuji, and M7 Chiyoshoma. Only two men within those groups has ever won a yusho [tournament championship] . . . Kisenosato who just did it for the first time in January, and Terunofuji who hasn’t won since May of 2015. That means ALL of the leaders will really be feeling the pressure, and there’s not really any telling how they’ll respond

Of course, there’s still more than a week to go in the tournament, and someone who is currently 4–2 COULD  work back into the hunt. But for now, that’s seeming like a longshot. 

The middle weekend is always filled with as many “marquee” pairings at the Sumo Association can manage, so as to drive up TV ratings. (They don’t have to worry about selling tickets to the the actual event these days. The seats for every day of the Haru Basho sold out in less than a week.)

M10 Tochiozan (6–0) vs. M8 Okinoumi (4–2)—While all the fireworks are going on up near the top of the banzuke [ranking sheet], Tochiozan is quietly dominating down near the middle. He’s a former sekiwake, so he knows what it takes to win, but even with his unbeaten record, he hasn’t looked particularly sharp or dominant this week. Facing Okinoumi, another former sekiwake, will give Tochiozan a chance to show how sharp his sumo really is. A decisive victory today might point to a strong Week 2 and staying in the hunt for the yusho. A loss or a weak performance today, and I think we can figure he’ll drop off the leaderboard before too long (4:50)

M5 Endo (3–3) vs. M7 Chiyoshoma (5–1)—Chiyoshoma is doing well, and that has the crowd on his side. But today he faces fan favorite Endo, so he’s going to have to get the job done while the crowd is against him today if he wants to remain one win behind the leaders. (6:15)

M6 Aoiyama (3–3) vs. M3 Takarafuji (5–1)—It was predictable that Takarafuji would lose his match yesterday to Kisenosato. But it’s only left him one win off the pace, so he’s got to turn his fortunes around NOW before they dissipate. His opponent today nearly physically identical to Kisenosato, but doesn’t have anywhere near the skills. This is Takarafuji’s chance to show how he’d HOPED yesterday’s match would have gone . . . or his chance to show that he really doesn’t know how to handle the big men. (8:40)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (4–2) vs. M3 Shohozan (1–5)—Say what you will about Kotoshogiku’s performances over the last six months, this basho he is looking like an ozeki should. Unfortunately, he’s a sekiwake . . . and must win 10 matches to regain his former rank. His opponent today showed how dangerous he can be yesterday by fairly manhandling yokozuna Kakuryu. Kotoshogiku is going to have to take control against Shohozan straight from the tachi-ai [initial charge] if he doesn’t want to share the yokozuna’s fate. (9:10)

M2 Sokokurai (2–4) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (6–0)—Takayasu looked nearly invincible yesterday in his win over ozeki Terunofuji. He blew the bigger man off the blocks at the tachi-ai and bullied his way to a fast and decisive win. The trick for him today is to maintain that kind of focus even though his opponent isn’t nearly as challenging. (This is a problem the Takayasu’s stable-mate Kisenosato struggled with for years and only recently seems to have overcome.) Sokokurai has more than enough skill to take advantage of any lapse in concentration that Takayasu suffers. (9:35)

M1 Takekaze (1–5) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (5–1)—Terunofuji has spent the entire basho physically dominating his opponents, so no one was more surprised than him when sekiwake Takayasu completely dominated him in yesterday’s match. I think the idea that anyone would try that simply hadn’t even occurred to Terunofuji, so he prepared no defense for it. Pride, as they say, goeth before a fall. But Terunofuji is still in good shape. He’s one behind the leaders, and still only needs three more wins to erase his kadoban [threathened with ozeki demotion] status. Today he faces one of the oldest rikishi still active, but also one who is known for moving fast and hitting hard. Still, if Terunofuji gets his focus back, he should be able to come out on top. (10:30)

Komusubi Mitakeumi 3–3) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (6–0)—In the past, this is the kind of match that would trip Kisenosato up and knock him out of contention. It’s the middle of a tournament where everything seems to be going his way. He’s fighting strong, other top rankers have already fallen or are kyujo [absent due to injury], and his opponent is a relatively young rikishi who has never beaten him in the past. These are the kind of matches where Kisenosato would fail to focus properly and find himself on the wrong end of a stunning upset. So far in 2017, Kisenosato has avoided this trap. Indeed, he’s come out extra prepared for these matches. If he does that again today, he’ll be setting himself up for a smooth run at the yusho during Week 2. If he falls back into his old ways, though, he’ll find himself toppled from the leaderboard and hoping for other rikishi to similarly slip up and let him back into contention. (11:40)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 6)

It’s Day 6 of the Haru Basho, and we’re down to five undefeated rikishi atop the leaderboard. Yokozuna Kisenosato, ozeki Terunofuji lead and sekiwake Takayasu lead the way, with M3 Takarafuji and M10 Tochiozan hanging tough, too. Of course, Terunofuji and Takayasu go head-to-head today, as do Kisenosato and Takarafuji, so tomorrow we’ll have no more than three leaders (and only two if Tochiozan fails to beat M12 Sadanoumi).

Even stranger, there are just two rikishi with only one loss—yokozuna Kakuryu and M7 Chiyoshoma—so we’ve got a pretty firm leaderboard set even before we enter the middle weekend.

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku took a step backwards in his goal to reach double-digit wins and regain his ozeki ranking. After beating yokozuna Kakuryu on Day 4, yesterday he literally slipped and lost to fellow sekiwake Tamawashi, leaving him with a 3–2 record. That means that he must win at least seven of his remaining ten matches. Luckily for him two of the three remaining opponents ranked above him have withdrawn—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Goeido (see below)—and he’s already fought the other two sekiwaki. This means that with the exception of yokozuna Kisenosato and ozeki Terunofuji, all of Kotoshogiku’s remaining opponents will be below him on the banzuke [ranking sheet]. It’s still a major challenge, with almost no margin for error . . . but it actually seems like a challenge appropriate to the skills an ozeki OUGHT to have.

We have more shifting in the kyujo [absent due to injury] ranks. First of all, M8 Kaisei, who has been absent for the first five days of the tournament, returns to action today. He’s got a tough task ahead of him, needing to win eight out of ten matches in order to get his kachi-koshi [majority of wins], but he’s certainly got the skills to dominate at that level of the banzuke if he truly is back in fighting shape. So one rikishi returns, but unfortunately one is also leaving. As mentioned above, ozeki Goeido has officially withdrawn because of the same ankle injury that caused him to withdraw in January and has resulted in his having lost ALL of his matches after a Day 1 victory over Ikioi. Truthfully, he probably shouldn’t have entered the Haru Basho at all—he only managed four days of practice in the lead-up to the tournament because his ankle was still so sore.

As we go on to today’s matches, be forewarned that there were some audio problems with the source files, so Kintamayama’s video sounds like it’s underwater. However, unless you speak Japanese or really enjoy the sounds of the rikishi smashing into each other, you can just mute the video and never have to deal with the bubbling sounds.

M12 Ura (2–3) vs. M11 Ishiura (3–2)—The two mighty mites going head-to-head for the first time when both are members of the upper division. (2:56)

M12 Sadanoumi (1–4) vs. M10 Tochiozan (5–0)—Tochiozan is the first of our co-leaders to fight today. His opponent is having a pretty rough tournament, and today isn’t likely to make it any better. (4:02)

M8 Kaisei (0–0–5) vs. M6 Aoiyama (2–3)—Kaisei is back, after missing the first five days because of a knee injury. Aoiyama will surely test if that knee is really well enough to warrant joining so late in the basho. (6:30)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (3–2) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (3–2)—Kotoshogiku is in a spot where pretty much every match is a must-win event if he wants to regain his ozeki ranking. Mitakeumi, however, is not going to roll over and play dead . . . he’s interested in making his own run for an ozeki promotion. Should be a hard-fought match. (10:30)

Sekiwake Takayasu (5–0) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (5–0)—Two unbeaten rikishi . . . one of them is about to lose that sobriquet. Both have been fighting strong and steady all tournament. Honestly, this is the match I’ve been looking forward to all day . . . and I have NO IDEA how it will end. I only hope that neither competitor injures himself in the contes. (11:15)

M3 Takarafuji (5–0) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (5–0)—The other two remaining unbeaten rikishi . . . for now. Both of them have been doing their own type of sumo to the best of their ability. However, Kisenosato’s sumo is much stronger than Takarafuji’s. Still, on any given day, you never know what will happen . . . and both men have very strong reasons to do WHATEVER is necessary to get a win. (11:46)

M3 Shohozan (0–5) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (4–1)—And from the Department of Never Judge a Bout by the Records Coming In, on paper this should be an absolute blow-out. Kakuryu has only lost one match is and hot on the heels of the tournament leaders, while Shohozan is winless and he has never beaten the yokozuna in any of their fifteen previous meetings. Yet this turns out to be one of the closest, most exciting matches of the day.  (13:50)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 5)

It’s Day 5 of the Haru Basho and, holy cats, the action in Osaka is really heating up. Yesterday we saw some very high-spirited sumo AND a smattering of controversy! And bizarrely, we start the day with only SIX undefeated rikishi atop the leaderboard—yokozuna Kisenosato, ozeki Terunofuji, sekiwake Takayasu, M3 Takarafuji, M7 Chiyoshoma, and M10 Tochiozan. That’s right, there are four yokozuna in the tournament and only ONE of them is undefeated on Day 5 . . . and it’s the shin-yokozuna. What’s more, two of the other yokozuna already have two losses . . . and Hakuho is one of them!

This, of course, brings us to the big controversy from yesterday—Hakuho’s loss to M1 Ikioi. Anytime Hakuho gives up a kinboshi [gold star award] (for being beaten by a maegashira-ranked opponent) it’s news of some sort, but the way it happened is the big news. First of all, it’s clear that Hakuho is not at full health, and his injured heel is almost certainly the culprit behind the very defensive way he’s fought so far this tournament. Still, if you go back and watch the match you’ll see that the video is pretty clear that Ikioi’s arm touched first, but the judges decided that Hakuho was “dead body” falling, and so they gave the win to Ikioi. There are a number of reasons why this is controversial.

1. Ikioi didn’t happen to fall and Hakuho “hover” for a few extra seconds, that was because of a deliberate move by the Yokozuna. And in many cases, this rationale would have been used to flip the decision and give Hakuho the outright win.

2. The fact of the matter is that they seemed to be falling in sync, and in most cases the judges would have called for a do-over and have the match be fought again. This is what most of the pundits thought was going to happen, ESPECIALLY because Hakuho is a yokozuna (and that often is worth a little extra consideration in such situations).

3. Earlier in the day there was an almost identical situation in the M6 Chiyonokuni vs M8 Okinoumi bout, and the judges made the complete opposite call . . . and in that bout, Chiyonokuni was falling because of Okinoumi’s attack, so definitely WAS “dead body.”

Basically, there are about six very good reasons why the match either should have been re-fought or awarded to Hakuho . . . but after significant deliberation and viewing of the video replay, it still wasn’t

Other items of note from yesterday include Kotoshogiku’s win over Kakuryu, keeping the sekiwake’s hope for double-digit wins (and reinstatement to the rank of ozeki) alive, and handing the yokozuna his first loss of the tournament; Kisenosato continuing to fight his way out of trouble smoothly, confidently, and with yokozuna style; Harumafuji nearly losing for a third day in a row, but managing to pull out a win . . . while also managing to get poked in the eye and give himself an excuse to go kyujo [absent for injury] if he wants (or needs) to; ozeki Terunofuji continuing to look strong, while ozeki Goeido continues to look like a hot mess (losing his third match in a row); sekiwake Takayasu continuing to look like a man with a date with an ozeki promotion, handling komusubi Mitakeumi like a seasoned veteran; and M10 Tochinoshin putting up a valiant fight, but still unable to overcome the leg injury that’s nagging him.

The question is, what do the Gods of Sumo have in store for us today?

INJURY UPDATE: So far this basho has been relatively injury free, with only M8 Kaisei being kyujo [absent because of injury], though word is that he may return to action in the next few days. Unfortunately, today yokozuna Hakuho has withdrawn from the tournament citing a combination of a scrape on the sole of his foot and a pulled thigh muscle as the reason. I have a feeling that this is just the start, and we’ll be seeing a few more injury withdrawals before Week 1 is done.

M11 Daieisho (1–3) vs. M13 Takakeisho (3–1)—This is a classic example of what happens when two “pusher/thruster” type rikishi fight. At the tachi-ai [initial charge] they go all out swinging and slapping with great vigor, but they tend to run out of steam pretty quickly. At that point they lean on each other until one recovers enough energy to start a second assault. (1:36)

M10 Tochiozan (4–0) vs. M7 Chiyoshoma (4–0)—Two of our unbeaten rikishi go head-to-head, meaning that the leaderboard will be at least one name shorter tomorrow. Tochiozan may be ranked lower this tournament, but he spent most of 2016 in sanyaku, while Chiyoshoma spent most of it in Juryo.  (4:10)

M6 Chiyonokuni (3–1) vs. M3 Takarafuji (4–0)—Another match featuring one of our co-leaders. Takarafuji has been looking strong in the same, unflashy way he did in January. He’s got more than enough sumo to beat opponents ranked below him, but not quite enough to regularly challenge the top-rankers. (6:00)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (2–2) vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku (3–1)—Kotoshogiku’s win against Kakuryu yesterday put him back on track to possibly hit double-digit wins and regain his ozeki rank. However, he MUST win ALL his matches against opponents who are equal- or lower-ranked than him . . . and today that’s fellow sekiwake Tamawashi. (6:30)

Komusubi Shodai (2–2) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (4–0)—Another co-leader, and the third sekiwake (something that doesn’t happen very often), Takayasu, has been showing strong, consistent sumo. He’s hoping to get double-digit wins and put himself in a position to make a run at an ozeki promotion in May. Shodai, however, is also a strong, up and coming rikishi who wants to prove he’s got what it takes to compete at the sanyaku ranks. (6:45)

M2 Takanoiwa (1–3) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–0)—I’ve been talking a lot about how strong Terunofuji has looked this basho. In fact, he’s looked so good I’ve forgotten to mention that he is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this tournament and MUST get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] or next basho he’ll be in the same mess that Kotoshogiku is in this time. Still, he’s unbeaten, one of our co-leaders, and halfway to his needed eight wins, so things are looking good for him. (7:15)

M1 Ikioi (1–3) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (4–0)—Our final co-leader is yokozuna Kisenosato, who is looking very much like the man to beat this tournament. Today he’s facing Ikioi, who got his first win yesterday by besting yokozuna Hakuho and collecting a kinboshi [gold star award for a maegashira-ranked rikishi beating a yokozuna]. He’d certainly like to collect another one today. (8:36)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 4)

Here we are on Day 4 of the Haru Basho and things continue to look interesting. Yokozuna Harumafuji lost a second bout, and has looked out of sort every time he’s been on the dohyo. Likewise, ozeki Goeido has started the tournament 1–2 and seems to have gone back to his old ways of plowing straight ahead without really having a plan. Meanwhile, sekiwake Kotoshogiku, who needs to win ten time this basho in order to regain his ozeki rank, lost for the first time yesterday. It was a good loss, to fellow sekiwake Takayasu (who is bucking for an ozeki promotion of his own), but Kotoshogiku can now only allow four more losses for the remainder of the tournament . . . and he’s still got to fight three yokozuna and an ozeki, which basically means he CAN’T have any slip-ups against other sanyaku or upper maegashira opponents.

Since all those permutations are probably a little confusing for the sumo neophyte, this seems like a good day for me to pontificate a little bit about how the upper echelons of the sport are organized.

The top division of professional sumo is called the Makuuchi Division, and it’s made up forty-two rikishi split into three tiers. The main tier are 30 or so maegashira rikishi ranked 1 through 15 or 16 (or even as high as 17 in an era with no yokozuna), paired East and West (with the East being slightly more prestigious). They all function normally for sumo, that is if a rikishi is kachi-kochi [majority of wins] during a given tournament, he will be promoted up in rank, and if he is make-koshi [majority of losses] he will be demoted. Those toward the bottom of the maegashira ranks can get demoted all the way out of the Makuuchi Division into the next lower Juryo Division.

Generally during a basho, a rikishi’s fifteen bouts will come from the twenty competitors ranked within five spots above or below his position (this, of course shifts a bit as a rikishi gets closer to the bottom of the division, when there are diminishingly fewer opponents ranked lower than him).

The middle tier is called the sanyaku, which literally means three upper ranks, and is made of three named ranks—komusubi, sekiwake, and ozeki. Apart from being named, the only real difference between komusubi and sekiwake as compared to the maegashira ranks is that the sanyaku rikishi are not eligible for kinboshi [gold star awards] if they beat a yokozuna in a match. That and the fact that they have a ceiling for promotion. There are only two slots each for komusubi and sekiwake, so even if a rikishi gets kachi-koshi he sometimes will be unable to be promoted unless and until a rikishi currently in that rank gets make-koshi and is demoted and makes room.

It’s even tougher to get promoted to ozeki (which loosely translates as “champion”), though there are no limits to the number of rikishi who may hold the title simultaneously. In order to garner an ozeki promotion, a rikishi must win 33 matches over the course of three tournaments. That’s an average of eleven wins per basho—a difficult challenge. Once a rikishi is promoted to ozeki, he only has to maintain kachi-koshi records to stay there (though an ozeki is expected to win ten bouts per tournament to put in a “good showing”). What’s more, an ozeki who has make-koshi is not automatically demoted. In fact, they get one automatic reprieve, and a second chance even if they squander that. The reprieve is designed so that an ozeki who is make-koshi keeps his rank but is said to be kadoban—which means if he gets make-koshi on the following tournament he WILL be demoted. This happened to Kotoshogiku recently. He was make-koshi in November 2016, became kadoban in January 2017 and still went make-koshi, so he has been demoted to sekiwake this tournament. However, as a former ozeki, he gets one more second chance. In this tournament, if he can get 10 or more wins, he will have his ozeki rank reinstated. However, if he fails in this opportunity, he will remain a sekiwake (if he is kachi-koshi) or drop further down the banzuke [ranking sheet] if he is make-koshi and would have to start from scratch to re-earn an ozeki ranking with another 33-win streak.

Very often, yokozuna counted as being part of the sanyaku ranks, but the truth is that they are a tier of their own. Yokozuna are “grand champions” and in order to become one a rikishi must win back-to-back yusho [grand tournament championships] or do something else of equivalent stature. Once a rikishi is promoted to yokozuna, there is no more promotion or demotion—he is there for the rest of his career. But a yokozuna is expected to exemplify the best of what sumo is . . . and they are expected to win eleven or more matches per tournament. Anything less, and they risk being pressured into retirement by the Sumo Association. (In point of fact, the Sumo Association can FORCE a yokozuna to retire, but in a culture where so much emphasis is put on honor and saving face, it rarely comes to that.)

Okay, I’ve stood on my soapbox long enough. Digest that information at your leisure, and apply it to what you’re watching as the tournament goes on. In the meanwhile, let’s look at today’s top matches.

M13 Takakeisho (2–1) vs. Kyokushuho (2–1)—Sometimes two lower ranked rikishi just decide to “bring it,” and you get a glorious match. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about either of these rikishi. I’m familiar with their names, but they haven’t done anything consistently good (or bad) enough to stick in my memory. But today’s bout will. (1:23)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (2–1) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (3–0)—After his win yesterday over fellow sekiwake Kostoshogiku, Takayasu has another tough opponent in up-and-comer Mitakeumi. But if Takayasu wants to be an ozeki, he’s going to have to get used to having a schedule that’s filled with the best opponents . . . and he’s going to have regularly beat pretty much EVERYONE. If he can’t do that, then he’s not ready to be an ozeki anyway. (8:20)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (2–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (3–0)—Kotoshogiku is fighting to get back his ozeki rank, and yesterday’s loss to Takayasu was a stumble along the way. He could do himself a real favor by beating Kakuryu . . . and he has a fair shot at it. The two have fought forty-four times in the past, and the results are nearly even. Meanwhile, Kakuryu may be undefeated this tournament, but he’s looked lackluster the whole way. If he really wants to compete for this yusho, he’s going to have to shake off the doldrums and lay the smack down on a serious opponent like Kotoshogiku. (11:20)

Yokozuna Hakuho (2–1) vs. M1 Ikioi (0–3)—On paper this seems unlikely to be one of the top matches of the day. Ikioi is winless so far this tournament, and he’s only ever beaten Hakuho once. And even though Hakuho has shown his feet of clay lately, he’s still been fighting strong and requiring that his opponents take the initiative if they want to pry a win out of his grip . . . and Ikioi really isn’t the initiative taking type. Still, they don’t award the yusho based on how things look on paper . . . they make you fight the bout. (11:55)

M2 Sokokurai (1–2) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (3–0)—Sokokurai beat a yokozuna yesterday (Harumafuji) and he’d like to do it again AND be the first rikishi to hand Kisenosato a loss at his new yokozuna rank. On the other hand, Kisenosato still is looking calm, collected, and ready to prove what a good idea it was to promote him. (13:30)